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Image: Margaret Dunning
Mike Cardew  /  Akron Beacon Journal
“I love the old cars,” said Margaret Dunning, 102, who bought her 1930 Packard 740 Roadster in 1949. Dunning was honored Wednesday for her love of all things automotive.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 9/29/2012 10:54:37 PM ET 2012-09-30T02:54:37

At age 102, car enthusiast Margaret Dunning is gearing up for her next great adventure: She’s heading back to college to finish her business degree.

Mere hours ago, Dunning — who had to drop out of the University of Michigan nearly 80 years ago during the Great Depression — had no idea that homework and tests were about to loom large in her life once again. But she’s lived long enough to know that happy surprises can come at the most unexpected times — and on Wednesday afternoon, the surprise she got was a doozy.

At a special ceremony just for her, Dunning was presented with free tuition at the University of Michigan and free car-care products for the rest of her life. The FRAM Group, which makes FRAM, Autolite and Prestone automotive products, wanted to honor Dunning in response to a TODAY.com article about her lifelong love of cars (and penchant for changing her own oil and spark plugs all these years).

Story: At 102, she changes oil, spark plugs on her 82-year-old car
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“I’m having a big day, I’ll tell you,” Dunning said in a telephone interview following the ceremony. “Was it ever a complete surprise!”

Dunning has been making headlines because of the doting care she still single-handedly provides to her 82-year-old car, a 1930 Packard 740 Roadster that she bought back in 1949. The Plymouth, Mich., resident also owns and cherishes a number of other classic cars.

On Wednesday, she reflected fondly on the Packards she’s driven over the years — including one that she smuggled to college with her and kept hidden in the woods.

“They would dismiss you out of school for a thing like that at the time,” Dunning said. “Nobody told on me, though. I used the car to come home on weekends, and I would come back and very quietly put it away.”

Slideshow: Aging across America: Vigorous, vital and full of life (on this page)

Dunning grew up on a dairy and potato farm west of Detroit, not far from where Henry Ford’s family lived. She first learned how to drive on her family’s farm at age 8, experienced her first car crash (smack into her family’s barn) at age 10 and obtained her first official driver’s license at age 12.

Image: Dave Buckshaw, Margaret Dunning and Jay Buckley
Summer Buckshaw
“Was it ever a complete surprise!” Margaret Dunning, 102, said of Wednesday’s ceremony in her honor at the Plymouth Historical Museum in Michigan. Pictured from left to right are Dave Buckshaw of FRAM Group, Margaret Dunning and Jay Buckley of FRAM Group.

After graduating from high school in 1929, Dunning began pursuing a business degree at the University of Michigan. But during the dark years of the Depression, she had to drop out of school to help her mother, who owned a bank and needed all the support she could get.

“I went on in banking for quite a while after that, so (leaving school) didn’t cause me too much harm,” Dunning said.

Still, the idea of returning to school after all these decades has filled Dunning with a rush of excitement. She said she figures she has about a year to go before completing her degree, and she’s already plotting out her commute to the university campus in Ann Arbor.

“I’ll have to figure out just what I’ll study, but it will be in business, though — I know that,” she said. “I’m still running a business right now. ... It’s a trust fund.”

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Dunning relished getting to talk shop with all the FRAM guys at the Plymouth Historical Museum on Wednesday afternoon — (“It’s so much fun to talk cars!” she said) — and she bubbled over with gratitude about the donations she received.

“I’m very, very pleased about it,” she said. “I feel that I’ve been granted a few years that other people do not have, and I am really very happy that I have this beautiful old world to live in.”

Story: Accomplishing amazing athletic feats — in their 80s and 90s

To see more photos of Margaret Dunning with her beloved 1930 Packard, click here.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: Aging across America: Vigorous, vital and full of life

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  1. Racing onward

    Aging ain’t necessarily what it’s cracked up to be. Just ask Dr. Jeffrey Levine, a New York-based geriatric specialist and professional photographer who has spent the past two decades documenting what he describes as “the biggest demographic transformation in human history”: a time when more people than ever are reaching very old ages. Levine's “Aging Across America” photography exhibit is on display at the National Arts Club in New York City through Sept. 21.

    Levine captured this photo at an “over 70” running race on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 2010. Several of the runners pictured here are more than 90 years old. Levine described the woman wearing the No. 337 bib as a “geriatric super athlete” who, at the age of 90, climbed 1,576 steps of the Empire State Building in just 22 minutes. (Copyright 2010, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Doing swimmingly

    Levine described Edith McAllister, pictured here, as one of the most amazing people he's ever met. “She loves swimming and water-skied into her 90s," he said. “I photographed her in her daily exercise at the pool.” (Copyright 2010, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Jamming for decades

    “I like to challenge stereotypes and show how people can thrive both physically and spiritually as they journey into old age,” said Levine, who took this photo of saxophone player and pennywhistle soloist Les Lieber in 2010. For nearly 50 years, Lieber performed every Friday at the Jazz at Noon jam sessions he founded in New York. He was in his 90s when Levine photographed him. (Copyright 2010, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Laughter is great medicine

    “Gladys and Elaine are friends since high school,” Levine said. “Every Sunday they meet at a coffee shop in South Harbor, Maine and catch up on gossip.” (Copyright 2009, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Hip and happy

    After spending her life working as a makeup artist, this woman started working in a costume shop in Las Vegas, where Levine met up with her in 2010. “I was impressed by the way she did her eyes, so I took her picture,” Levine said. (Copyright 2010, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Fire in the belly

    Gibsonton, Fla., is known as the wintering grounds for circus workers, many of whom are growing old. Levine traveled to Gibsonton and captured this photo of a circus performer known as Mr. Poobah, who has spent his career performing a fire-eating act. Levine noted that he “has few hairs left on his face.” (Copyright 2009, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Focused and calm

    Levine took this photo at a tai chi class at a senior center in Queens, N.Y., that is popular with Asian-Americans. “Abe, the teacher, was a patient of mine who invited me to visit,” Levine said. (Copyright 2010, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Just married

    Ralph and Dick, pictured here, had been together for more than 40 years before they legally wed in New York state. “I photographed them in their backyard in upstate New York,” Levine said. (Copyright 2012, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Granny Peace Brigade

    The Raging Grannies is an international group of activists who use street theater, humor, satire and props as they demonstrate about issues tied to social justice. Levine photographed them marching in New York's Times Square in 2010. (Copyright 2010, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Proud and strong

    J.T. Freeman, left, is one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators who served in the United States armed forces during World War II. Pictured with him is an admiring friend who served in the Marines in Vietnam. (Copyright 2009, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Meet the Hub Club

    In California’s Bay Area, the city of Fremont is home to a large population of Indian and Pakistani immigrants. “A group of elders meets every Saturday at a shopping mall called the Fremont Hub, and call themselves the Hub Club,” Levine said. (Copyright 2011, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A rich ancestry

    Brandon Williams is a Native American from the Navajo tribe who paints visions of his ancestors. He is pictured here with his painting of his great-grandfather, Standing Horse. Levine photographed Williams at the Santa Fe Indian Market in New Mexico in 2012. (Copyright 2012, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Roaring engines

    These days, it’s quite common to see die-hard bikers in their 70s and 80s at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. “Hope, passion and something to look forward to – including next year’s Sturgis – is something that keeps people alive,” Levine noted. (Copyright 2011, Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A love of medicine and art

    As a doctor specializing in geriatric medicine, Levine sees patients at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and serves on the faculty at Albert Einstein Medical Center. He’s also traveled the world over documenting aging in various cultures. “As a geriatrician I am aware of our common human destiny of growing old and the need for a view of aging that inspires and teaches,” Levine said.

    To see more images from Levine’s “Aging Across America” portfolio and other photography projects, click here. To learn more about his New York exhibit, click here. (Courtesy Jeffrey M. Levine) Back to slideshow navigation
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